Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Amazing Before and After of the Amazing Japanese Pancake. Amazing!

So, the Missus and I just had some culinary adventures in the port of Amsterdam, a name I can't write without singing loudly to myself in cartoonish imitation of Jacques Brel or David Bowie. Surely everyone does that?

Highlights for us included plenty of falafel and beer. We're simple, hobbit-like folk who think with our bellies. I'm told we went to a concert and even a museum between meals.

The best feeding of the weekend was at the aptly named Japanese Pancake World. The specialty there is okonomiyaki; but you'll find "Japanese pancake" much easier to say I think. The literal translation is "grill what you like." To the Japanese this is ancient street food, often eaten at festivals. To us it's just damn tasty.

And now I imagine that somewhere in Japan there is a gourmet corn dog restaurant. Doesn't matter.

Mine was Hiroshima style. What's in there, anyway? A bit of batter, loads of cabbage, some corn, thin slices of pork... and a bunch of other things. Some little curly fish flakes. Noodles. Seaweed. Other odds and ends. This tall pile of stuff is cooked at medium heat on a griddle, slowly, squishing it down as some of the juices cook out. Finally it's turned upside-down (or right side up, if you prefer) and slathered with Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise. You are encouraged to slather more and generously. I slathered like a slathering fool and was not disappointed. Every bite was a sweet-and-savory burst of yum.

The only thing this place was missing was some decent beer. Luckily one of Holland's best is a 10-minute walk away. The Arendsnest is atmospheric and very Dutch, showing great taste with its list of local beers. Pictured here is the Pek & Veren, a smoked stout from the Molen brewery.

I wanted more flavor from this one. You know, more contemplative sip-ability, considering its 8% strength. Instead it was dangerously smooth and quaffable. The smoke was almost too subtle.

It was awful purty though.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Beer Hunting in Paris: Not for the Faint of Heart.

It's a well-kept secret that France makes some damn fine beers. Wine gets all the attention. But particularly in the North near the Belgian border, farmhouse traditions and gastronomic culture collide to make several tasty amber liquids.

A short primer: Many of the best French beers are known as biére de garde. That means beer for keeping, and it's a close relative of the Belgian saison ales. Back in the day, farmers (read: land owners) in this region used to make loads and loads of this stuff to fuel their workers (read: peasants) in the warmer months. Problem was, it was tough to brew in the warmer months because of infection and other issues. So they brewed in the winter. The beer was built to last.

My point is, France has a solid beer-making tradition. And wouldn't you think it would easy to find good examples of this tradition in Paris, the very capital of France?

Well, don't think that. You'd be wrong.

Not only is good biére de garde tough to find in Paris, but you'll pay a high price if you come across it. This is a city where, in the center, even a watery Kronenbourg will run you €7 in a typical café. Expect to pay a couple euros more for decent craft beer.

A smarter man would just drink wine in Paris. It's cheaper you know, and it'll be good.

But I am not a smarter man. I am a beer man.

So it came to pass that we paid dearly to try a few interesting French beers in Paris. One of them, pictured here, is Gwiniz Du from the Brasserie de Bretagne. That region is known for its buckwheat crêpes, and this dark and bready number is made from the same grain. There were no crêpes within reach at that moment, but I reckon it would have made a tasty pairing. This was at the cozy Sous Bock, a rugby-themed pub near the Louvre boasting more than 150 beers.

By my count, this pub had more than twice as many Belgian beers (85) as French ones (36). That was a common theme; in fact, a couple of the specialist cafés we tried had virtually no French craft beer. Just lots of Belgians.

More irony: The three best French beers I think I've ever tasted--two from Thiriez and the excellent Bavaisienne from Theillier--were at the Delirium Café in Brussels.

So it goes in the strange world of craft beer exports.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

I Wouldn't Drink That if I Were You.

Recently we visited the WWII Museum and Memorial in Bastogne. And just now a Bart quote from a very old Simpsons episode popped into my head: "There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy."

Anyway, the museum and its audio tour were interesting. The coolest stuff for me was all the random objects from the war era. Many of them were presumably from the pockets and collections of soldiers. I'll be honest, the weapons were a bit boring for me. I was a lot more interested in the comic books and chewing gum.

And the beer.

So here's a photo of a beer from WWII. Note the clear bottle; I think it's safe to say that this little guy is long past his drink-by date. A little trivia on Fort Pitt Brewing, in case you care: It was a Pittsburgh brewery open from 1906 to 1957. It's named for the British military fort around which Pittsburgh was built.

Incidentally, the British built one of the early North American breweries at Fort Pitt in 1765. Not long before the American Revolution. Another of Bart's good wars!

See how beer brings everything full circle?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

OK, One More Thing About Lisbon, You Drunks.

I like to think I'm a dude who appreciates the finer things, and too often I don't mind paying for them. Real flavor and character are far more important to me than alcohol, which frankly gets in my way.

Aww, but I'm a sucker for cheap novelty booze!

In Lisbon, the cheap novelty booze of choice is ginjinha. It's a brandy made with fermented sour cherries. OK, a little googling will tell you they're not really sour cherries, but in fact a suspiciously cherry-like berry called ginja. Nonsense, I say. This is a Prunus of subgenus Cerasus if I've ever seen one. Ahem.

Anyway. In the center of Lisbon you're bound to walk past a hole in the wall called A Ginjinha. It's not much bigger than a walk-in closet. There, for a measly euro (approximately US$87.52 at today's exchange rate), you can get a plastic cup of this tart and syrupy sweet concoction. Interesting stuff, and an easy pick-me-up if your dogs are tired from touristing.

One more thing: Guidebooks will warn you not to eat the liquor-soaked cherries in the bottom of the cup, lest you get sick or hallucinate. More lies! I took that bullet for you with no ill effects. Chomp away and live to tell the tale.

Monday, May 5, 2008

All That and a Bag of Chips.

Late report from Open Brewing Day: We hit all three of our priorities at Drie Fonteinen, Dubuisson and the castle at Géants. The last one was probably the most fun, as a medieval atmosphere invaded the courtyard amid perfect weather. Minstrels and jesters ran around and bemused a sizable chunk of Ath and Irchonwelz beer lovers. Outside the castle a sporting dude in knight's getup allowed a gang of young whippersnappers to beat the hell out of him with rubber swords. There was an archery range, which to me seemed less than brilliant alongside copious amounts of Belgian beer. And there was much revelry.

Most exciting for me: the redemption of Saison Voisin. Ah, saisons... I could go on and on and on about them, but not today. For now I'll tell you about this one: The Voisin is generally a touch maltier and darker than other beers calling themselves saisons. It's also been a touch sweeter without much bitterness. On tap, fresh at the brewery, it was another thing altogether. The hops got all serious on me. That plus moderate dryness made for a very refreshing beer on a damn fine spring afternoon. Could be that the recipe has changed a bit since merging with Ellezelloise, whose beers lean on the dry and bitter side. I hope so. Or it could be that I've got no idea what I'm talking about. Also very possible.

In Beersel, we got a sneak preview of Armand's new tasting café at Drie Fonteinen. Sadly there was no glimpse of the café's beer list yet. It should open for real sometime this month, in theory. That's a must-visit if you enjoy real lambic and plan to be in Belgium this summer. Tell Armand that Joe sent you. If you're lucky, he might pretend that he remembers who the hell you're talking about.

The Dubuisson brewery just outside of Pipaix is also worth a visit, especially if you have a taste for the strong and sweet. The weather wasn't quite right for barley wines; I prefer winter and a snifter before bedtime. But the tour was a hoot anyway. The animated film starring the Dubuisson troll is much funnier if your French is as weak as mine. The gym-sized, high-tech bottling machine was truly impressive. Best of all, the beer tent at the end sold bags of chips for 2 euros.

Now, I'm used to be gouged by snack prices in Brussels pubs. So I assumed I was plunking down coins for a tiny snack pack. But behold! It was one of those giant, extra-large bags from the grocery store. They don't skimp on the chips in Pipaix, no sir. They do it right. And every few feet around the tent, there was a poster warning you to use a "Bob," or designated driver.

This is true wisdom when your beer is 12 percent booze.